National Gallery – The Dawning Of The Renaissance

THE climax in the ecstatic school of religious art was reached by Fra Angelico, the gentle monk, who devoted his life to art for love of his brethren, and not for temporal gain. Fra Giovanni was a man of most holy life. This simplicity, goodness, and purity are the foundation of his appeal to the hearts of all generations. If one becomes analytic, one will probably observe that in imaginative power and dramatic feeling he is below Giotto, Orcagna, or Spinello. Yet there is a spell about his lovely angelic hosts and his ascetic saints for which it is hard to account on critical grounds. His works in the National Gallery are very interesting, and especially demonstrate his spiritual grace and feeling. No. 582 is the Adoration of the Magi, which expresses much of the sentiment for which the blessed Giovanni was famous. The delicate wistfulness of the Madonna, the reverence of the worshippers, and the highly decorative garments which they wear, are all characteristic of the master. But even more perfect as an illustration of his genius is the group of panels, No. 663, known as the Christ in Glory. The central figure of the risen Lord is inadequate; whenever Fra Angelico attempted to paint an undraped figure, it was unnatural, for his studies and meditations had never led him to observe the nude; but the angelic host and the group of the blessed, many of them with their names inscribed on their halos, could hardly be more satisfactory. There are over two hundred and sixty figures here represented, and the detail and conscientious workmanship are as remarkable as in any of the famous pictures by Fra Angelico in Italy. The Virgins of Fra Angelico have been called ” visible incarnations of the spirit of holiness “; tradition has it that the good Beato was originally an illuminator of manuscripts, and the internal evidence of the quality of his colouring, bright and almost crude, sometimes really dazzling, confirms this legend. His palette is that of the illuminator. To explain the subtle charm of his works, one must believe that his imagination was dominated by actual visions ; he painted from what he must have seen with his spiritual eyes, while in a state of exaltation. To him the painting of a picture was an act of worship; he never even corrected a line which he had once made, going so far as to believe that his hand was an instrument of the divine will.

If we turn to the large altar-piece by Benozzo Gozzoli, No. 283, we will see that this favourite pupil of Fra Angelico, in all technical methods, has profited by his teaching; the pupil is, if anything, in advance of the master. The meek Virgin and the robust human Child are well drawn and modelled, the kneeling saints have beautifully in-scribed halos ; but there is more pose, more consciousness of an audience than in the absorbed little saints of the Beato; the vision has faded. The world is making more headway with Benozzo. And in the little octagon panel, No. 591, we discover that Benozzo has undertaken, not only a secular, but a shady subject! no less than the Abduction of Helen of Troy! We say advisedly that he has undertaken to portray this classical subject, for it were vain to claim that he has succeeded. The people are Florentines. The merry group are enjoying themselves in strictly medieval attitudes ; and Helen herself, mounted triumphantly on the neck of Paris, is riding off in glee, while her lover, holding her firmly in place by the wrists, dashes down the temple steps, and makes for the river. Benozzo has a wonderful faculty for painting the beauty of the jewels and clothing of his period, but he has not the same ideal, which governed Fra Angelico da Fiesole, of making them minister to his religion.

The eccentric Andrea Castagno and his friend Domenico Veneziano may be here considered. Domenico Veneziano was said to have been the first to employ oil as a regular medium in painting; as we have seen, oil was used for many centuries in various recipes for preparing pigments, but in its more modern application it had not reached Italy in the fourteenth century, though the Van Eycks in Flanders were painting freely with an oil vehicle at this time. But of them later. The legend runs that Domenico told his secret to Andrea del Castagno, who, anxious to be the sole proprietor of this new discovery, murdered his friend. But, as Andrea died in 1427, and Veneziano not until 1461, it is hardly possible now to credit this romantic tale.

As it happens, the pictures by Domenico in the National Gallery are in fresco. Two heads, a monk, No. 766, and a saint, 767, are well-drawn, stalwart models, originally part of a tabernacle in the Canto de’ Carnesecchi in Florence. The central portion of this tabernacle was the Madonna and Child, No. 1215. This group of three pictures should be regarded with special respect, for, with the exception of one picture in the Uffizi, they are all that have survived of the works of this master.

Andrea del Castagno, the friend and reputed murderer of Domenico, is represented by one picture only in this collection; this is a small dark panel, a Crucifixion, No. 1138. It is chiefly interesting as being the earliest specimen of landscape painting in the gallery.

A painter-monk of a very different mould from Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo Lippi (endeared to all of us by his human frailties and his pretty Ma-donnas), was not a good monk; he did not see visions, nor was he a religious enthusiast; but he was a painter of the most exquisite pictures, and with his ardent nature, which was under the suppression of the Church, he managed to infuse into his work an inspiration differing in kind from that of the Beato, but none the less good to look upon for that. The most remarkable feature about the large picture, No. 248, the Vision of St. Bernard, is the study of facial expression, — individual surprise. is depicted on the face of the saint, when, upon looking up from his book, he sees the Divine Mother before him. This picture, which is in tempera, was painted to occupy a certain space over a door in the Palazzo Signoria in Florence. Thus its shape was determined for it, but Fra ‘Lippo proved himself an able composer as well as a good delineator, for he has filled the odd-shaped lunette very admirably. No. 589 is a charming little panel representing the Virgin receiving the Child from an attendant angel. The mother-love appealed to Fra ‘Lippo quite as much as a more austere form of reverence, and there is little of the formal majesty of some of the earlier Madonnas, but it has great dignity. The Annunciation, No. 666, is a rather conventional but very pretty treatment of the subject. The picture is enchanting in all its details, from the little flowered lawn on which the angel kneels, with his beautiful peacock wings, to the exquisite bordering on the robe of the Virgin, — everything is refined and lovely. The colouring is harmonious, too; it is soft and more subdued than the tints used by most of Fra ‘Lippo’s contemporaries. The same delicacy of tone is observable in his St. John the Baptist and Other Saints, No. 667, which is the companion-piece to the Annunciation, and in the same semi-lunette panel form. This charming composition shows St. John seated in the centre, with six saints grouped about, listening to his words. The young saints, sitting on a marble sedilia, in a beautiful garden, listening to inspired words, — this all typifies the quality of the religion of Fra ‘Lippo. Ruskin calls attention to his love for flowers. He had the same love of beauty which characterized the artists of the Renaissance. The mediæval ascetic has died, and the lover of all things good and beautiful exists. The spring of the new art is dawning. The two figures of the young saints Cosmo and Damian, sitting on either side of the Baptist, are full of the spirit of this Renaissance; they were the patrons of Cosmo de Medici, for whom these panels were executed.

Good has come out of evil for us through the existence of Fra Filippo Lippi’s son, Filippino Lippi. It was a great scandal at the time, that this youth should be the son of Fra ‘Lippo and his beautiful model, the nun Lucrezia; it is, after some centuries, an unmixed blessing that we have the works of this delightful painter, whose pictures equalled those of his illustrious father. He has bequeathed to us a most attractive type, that of the Virgin, in the large picture, No. 293, where, in a beautiful landscape, the Child and his mother are adored by the saints Jerome and Dominick. The same face occurs again on a fragment in tempera, No. 927. No more lovely bit of Filippino’s work exists than this exquisite scrap, with the sweet round-browed angel raising his hands in adoration. The touch of this artist is very crisp. There are two renderings by Filippino of the Adoration of the Magi, one, No. 592, a long, low panel, with historical treat-ment, and the other, a tondo, or circular panel, No. 1033. Both are well-executed, well-filled spaces ; and the round one is almost like a Botticelli. As Filippino’s father died while he was very young, he was brought up under the direction of the immortal and unique Sandra, and this picture is sometimes claimed for the latter. The seventy figures which crowd into the scene are well composed, and the whole is handled much as Botticelli would have done it. In the St. Francis in Glory, Filippino is less happy in his composition. This panel is numbered 598. It seems as though the artist had brushed his angels up into an inconspicuous place, so that he might have an opportunity to work an elaborately tooled gold background. The result is curious rather than harmonious. The picture suggests an experiment.

Pollaiuolo’s St. Sebastian, No. 292, is the first picture in the National Gallery painted entirely in oils. (The Nativity, by Piero della Francesca, is also in oil, but it is a little later). Pollaiuolo was among the earliest painters to practise dissection, and his anatomic knowledge, and also his under-standing of aerial perspective, was in advance of some of his contemporaries. This picture was painted primarily, as to its composition, to enable the artist to work out various problems in fore-shortening. One figure is studied entirely from behind, another from the side, and St. Sebastian himself from below. Although the result may not be beautiful, it is, at any rate, clever. The landscape is quite extensive, and, instead of looking like a scene painted on a vertical plane behind the figures, as many early landscapes do, it seems to recede like real country, — in other words, it is correctly foreshortened. Few painters of Pollaiuolo’s day painted anatomy any more correctly than he; if his figures are meagre, it must be remembered that the Florentines of that period were probably a rather thin, cold, poorly nourished people. He painted the nude as he saw it; also it is well to bear in mind that the nude was probably seen by him after death, in most cases. His ambition was not to create a thing of beauty, but to place within his picture the unflattered human form. St. Sebastian is calm and exalted in his suffering; this is the only spiritual touch in the composition. This picture should be compared with Crivelli’s altar-piece, No. 724, in which St. Sebastian is seen to cringe as an arrow fixes itself in his leg.

There are two Tuscan pictures considered to be of the school of Verocchio, Nos. 296 and 781. They are both very fine works, whoever painted them. They have certain characteristics of this master, to those who observe critically the traits of the artists of the Renaissance. One Madonna, No. 296, is very like the work of Lorenzo di Credi, the faces being calm and lovely. The quaint attitude of the Child is interesting, with his little fingers up to his lips, as if he were asking permission to eat something which he holds in his hand. The execution and finish of the picture, too, are very perfect.

Ghirlandaio is one of the artists who is not very well represented in the National Gallery. He was primarily a great composer of decorative fresco, and here we find him only as a portrait painter. No. 1230, a bust of a girl, and No. 1299, portrait of a youth, are painted acceptably, but are rather un-imaginative and phlegmatic, showing little of the great scenic possibilities of the Florentine. Ghirlandaio had the honour to teach Michelangelo. He was born in 1449, the son of a goldsmith in Florence, who made wreaths of silver, which were worn by young girls in those days, and from this occupation, as a garland maker, he derived his name. Domenico’s chief virtue, beside able colouring and composition, was his remarkably accurate eye. He could make architectural drawings with-out measurements ; he ” drew by eye,” as many ” play by ear,” for, when his optical measurements were compared with the actual ones, they were found to be mechanically correct. He and his brother worked together frequently. They had a strange experience once, while engaged on a bit of fresco work for the monks of Santa Maria Nuova. They were dissatisfied with the fare which they received for their dinner. They complained that it was only fit for common labourers, and they petitioned the monks to provide them with better food. The next day the same bowl of inferior soup and a poor loaf of bread were presented, the monks paying no attention to their request. Where-upon these high-spirited boys took the soup and poured it down the neck of the brother who brought it, and beat him with the loaf. After that, they had better viands. Domenico worked also in mosaic. He died, according to Vasari, in 1498, ” of a violent fever, the pestiferous nature of which deprived him of life in five days.”

In the reign of Sixtus IV., the Pope who was such a great lover of the arts, and who built the Sistine Chapel, the leading painters were much affected by the reaction which set in in favour of pagan art. Sixtus had superintended many excavations, and had rediscovered much classic treasure about Rome, while the myths of both Greece and Rome were the fashionable literature of the readers of the period. Many pictures of classical subjects were executed at this time, although, owing to the fact that the revived taste for the antique was only in its infancy, the education of the painters had not yet made it possible for them to know much of the costume or daily life of classic times. So they selected the subjects from the ancient stories, but clothed their people as their own citizens were clothed; they did not concern themselves much with details of realism. The rage for antiquities had reached such a height, that, at the end of the fifteenth century, when an embalmed body of a young Roman maiden was discovered, the Pope thought best to have it buried secretly, lest the populace should be moved to offer it some kind of worship ! The passion for classical learning spread, so that many individuals even returned to the pagan faith, and changed their Christian names for Greek and Roman ones.

When Lorenzo the Magnificent became ruler of Florence, the classic revival was in full swing, and swept in a wave of paganism unrestrained. Immorality and scepticism obtained among the cultured people of the city. In the midst of all this confusion, one can understand the need for Savonarola, and one can the more reverence such artists as Fra Bartolommeo, Botticelli, and Lorenzo di Credi, with their many followers, who, known as the Piagnoni Painters, kept before the people the essential teachings of the Church as they knew it, and were untouched by the decadent state of the society in which they lived.

The only example of the pious Fra Bartolommeo in the National Gallery is a Madonna, No. 1694, in which the little St. John is figured as a pilgrim with staff and flask; the infant Christ reaches toward him. The picture is a particularly fine specimen, rich and tender, full of spiritual grace.

Among the naïve artists of the classic Renaissance, Piero di Cosimo stands well represented in this collection, by his characteristic picture of the Death of Procris, No. 698. The poor nymph lies dead on the low sandy marsh, where her jealous watchfulness of her young hunter-husband had caused her to follow him. Wounded by a random shot from the unsuspecting Cephalus himself, she lost her life, without his realizing what he had done. Carelessly he went on his glad way, leaving his beloved wife to be discovered by the strange little mediæval satyr who bends over her in the picture. A curious creature is this; his ears are the weirdest imaginable, and would presuppose a face of vicious expression. But no; a helpless, simple, kind-hearted furry hybrid is the satyr, not in the least Greek, nor terrifying; just a woodland creature of harmless ways, who is distressed to find the poor maiden lying dead. He kneels by her ; and, by the way, his knees turn as human knees do, — Piero had forgotten that satyrs had goat’s legs, and he has endowed his with very thin shanks, covered with fur, but anatomically the same as a deformed man might have. The dog Lelaps sits by, with a wonderfully comprehending expression on his face. It is as unusual to see a dog with an ostrich-feather tail as to see a faun with human knee-joints ! But one does not care. The whole scene is so ingenuous, so innocent, and so eloquent of the early flower of art, that its little technical irregularities are as pathetic as a child’s effort to draw his idea of a beautiful face. The panel, which is of poplar-wood, is long and narrow. Austin Dobson’s poem on the subject seems to be describing this very picture.

Piero di Cosimo was an eccentric man, and George Eliot, in ” Romola,” has given us a hardly exaggerated picture of him. He lived the life of a hermit, allowing no one to visit him, preferring to work quite by himself. The presence of human beings interfered with his inspiration ; even to hear the usual sounds of the street caused him great annoyance. He delighted in constructing strange anatomic freaks, based upon various animal forms. In passing a wall which had marks of mould or weather-stain upon it, he would often see imaginary landscapes or cities in these accidental embellishments, and he was constantly observing scenes of this description in the clouds. He was in great demand for designing pageants and processions, and the results were often weird, and not infrequently very impressive. He ruined his health by an exclusive diet of eggs. To save trouble, he would boil fifty at a time, keeping them in a basket, from which he could help himself when he happened to feel hungry. In his excitable nature lay a terror of lightning and any natural phenomena of such character; he used to go in, shut up all his windows, and roll his head up in a cloak during thunder-storms. His objection to being watched at his work was carried to such an extreme that he once refused to allow the superintendent of a hospital to see a picture which he had ordered, until it was entirely finished, while he nevertheless charged a certain amount at intervals toward its completion. The superintendent finally refused to pay any more instalments until he should be convinced of the progress of the work. ” Very well,” replied Piero, ” then I will destroy what I have done.” By this threat he obtained his regular payments, and not until it pleased the artist to consider the picture finished did the owner set eyes upon it! This lonely and eccentric man was finally discovered lying dead at the foot of his own stair-case.

There is also an interesting portrait of a warrior in armour by our friend Piero di Cosimo, No. 895, the background of which displays the Piazza Signoria in Florence, with the Palazzo Vecchio and the Loggia as they stood in his day. The Lion Marzocco and Michelangelo’s David may also be distinguished. The great sculptor was in the beginning of his fame when this picture was painted.

The greatest pupil of Piero di Cosimo was Andrea del Sarto, the ” faultless painter.” The National Gallery has only two of his works. One, No. 69o, was long supposed to be his own portrait. The fascinating, somewhat melancholy face, with its subtle marks of experience, might easily be an image of the unhappy Andrea, but it happens that his authenticated likenesses do not bear out the similarity. Probably this is some well-known sculptor. He is holding in his hands a block of modelling-clay. The lights on the face and the wonderfully living expression of the eyes in their side glance make this one of the most attractive portraits in London. The Madonna and Child, with St. Elizabeth and St. John, No. 17, is not one of the finest of Andrea’s Holy Families ; and it is questioned whether the picture be a genuine one.

Andrea del Sarto learned much from some men, and bequeathed a great deal to others. From his master, Piero di Cosimo, from Leonardo, from Raphael and Michelangelo, he absorbed much. As he tells his wife, in Browning’s poem (showing his deep veneration for the last two) :

” Said one day Agnolo his very self, To Raphael, — I have known it all these years, — (When the young man was flaming out his thought Upon a palace wall for Rome to see, Too lifted up in heart because of it), Friend, there’s a certain sorry little scrub Goes up and down our Florence, none cares how, Who, were he set to plan and execute, As you are, picked on by your Popes and Kings, Would bring the sweat into that brow of yours!’ To Raphael’s ! “